Lawsuit: Man Lost His Leg After Jail Denied Medical Care for Toe Infection

Andres Romero, 72, who eventually lost his leg after several amputations while in Cochise County Jail custody. Romero alleges the injury started with the jail's neglect of a minor toe infection, which he developed due to faulty hospital facilities.
Andres Romero, 72, who eventually lost his leg after several amputations while in Cochise County Jail custody. Romero alleges the injury started with the jail's neglect of a minor toe infection, which he developed due to faulty hospital facilities. David Morgan
In June of last year, Andres Romero walked into booking at the local county jail on his own two feet. Five months later, he left in a wheelchair with just one leg.

Romero's problem began as a minor toe infection while he was incarcerated at Cochise County Jail. It evolved into an emergency that led him to lose his leg because the facility routinely denied him adequate medical treatment, despite his pleas for help, he alleges in a newly filed notice of claim.

Fellow inmates who were incarcerated along with Romero told Phoenix New Times they repeatedly filed requests for medical attention on his behalf, only to watch as he was denied evaluation for several weeks despite signs of worsening infection.

Romero, who is 72, is asking for $2.5 million in financial compensation for the injury, alleging that the loss of his limb has permanently damaged his chances of finding future employment as an aging man in a small community.

The Injury

Andres Romero Flores entered Cochise County Jail in Bisbee, Arizona, on June 9. His charges were serious: Three days earlier, he'd been arrested on four felony counts of sexual abuse against his teenage daughter.

He’d been in the local county jail for a little over a month when the injury occurred. It was July 23, and Romero was in the shower. The knob that was used to turn on the water suddenly fell off the wall and hit the big toe on his right leg.

It hurt instantly, though the occurrence was unsurprising — other inmates incarcerated at the same time as Romero described the inch-wide shower knob as a well-known liability of daily life in the jail. It was faulty, regularly shooting off the wall after enough water pressure built up, and it weighed about three pounds, according to then-inmate Jeremy Welch.

“We all kept an eye out for it,” Welch said. “I knew I guy who had a shiner from it hitting him.”

At first Romero’s toe began to swell, the nail hanging loose, according to Romero, fellow inmates, and the notice of claim. He said he initially asked nursing staff to remove the nail, but claims they declined.

He pulled it off himself two nights later, but the swelling – and the mounting pain – persisted.

“It was like I have a bone off inside,” Romero said.

During this time, Romero said he alerted jail staff that he believed his toe had become infected, and filed several requests for medical evaluation with a doctor. But he and fellow inmates allege the jail’s nurses merely provided him Tylenol or warm water packets to place on the injury.

“They said, ‘It’s nothing,’” he said.

Eventually, his toe turned black. The notice of claim alleges it also began to rot, omitting a gangrenous odor.” Romero said the pain worsened, as his medical requests languished.

“My toe is hurting so bad — I don’t sleep during the daytime, I don’t sleep during the nighttime,” Romero said. He said began filing doctor’s requests almost every day.

Other inmates began to take notice. His ex-cellmate Welch said he often awoke in the middle of the night to Romero sobbing in pain.

He remembers Andres standing up to go to the bathroom on a night three days after the injury, but his injured foot was unable to support him. He fell and hit his head. Instead of receiving treatment, Welch said, Romero was placed in “the hole.”

“It’s like solitary confinement — he was put there for ‘special handling,’” said Welch.

Booking records confirm this incident and that Romero was placed in “Holding 1” for observation, though they note that at this time, Romero was able to get up and walk after an hour and a half and seemed to be “in good health.” But Welch said that beyond that day, Romero received no special treatment for the toe.

As the situation progressed, Welch said he, along with several other prisoners, including Luis Siqueiros, repeatedly asked nurses to help him.

“They don’t really listen to inmates there,” Welch said. “They would just come and they would just look at his toe and leave.”

Siqueiros estimated that between him and another inmate named David Jarrell, they filed around 30 grievances or medical requests on Romero’s behalf. (Jarrell could not be reached for comment.) Welch began writing letters to his mother, he said, asking her to pray for Romero’s health.

Both men spoke about the “treatment plan” provided by Cochise County Jail for their injured jailmate – consisting of one to two Tylenol a day, hot water packs, and nurses encouraging him to “drink more water.” Once, several weeks in to the injury, Welch said, Romero was given a triple antibiotic, but it appeared to be ineffective. The infection had spread.

“He couldn’t even walk because his foot was so swelled,” Welch said.

click to enlarge Andres Romero's right leg in November 2019. - DAVID MORGAN
Andres Romero's right leg in November 2019.
David Morgan
New Times attempted to speak to Samantha Childs, a nurse employed at Cochise County Jail during this time, about the incident. Childs, who herself is now incarcerated in the jail for drug-related charges, recalled Romero and said there were certainly “things to be said” about his case, but declined to comment via a Securus video visit while she was incarcerated within her former employer’s facility, noting that “they listen to these calls.”

Sometime in August — Romero doesn’t remember the exact day — shortly after his cellmate Welch was released from the jail, he said he was at last taken to Copper Queen Community Hospital for X-rays. Two or three weeks later, they called him back. He was quickly transferred to Tucson Medical Center hospital for further care.

What began next, according to Romero and the notice of claim, was a tumultuous series of events over several months in and out of the facility: First doctors told him his toe needed to be amputated, and he eagerly agreed — anything to stop the pain. But a few weeks later, they returned and informed him the infection remained — so they cut off his lower leg, from foot to knee.

It didn’t work – the infection was serious, and aggressive – they suggested amputation of almost the entire remainder of his leg, severing halfway through the femur.

“I told them just cut it,” Romero said, fearing the infection would spread to his heart. “I don’t want to die.”

Romero was released from the jail’s custody on his own recognizance on October 18, according to court documents. Though his charges remain, he will temporarily await trial at home with his wife — under the strict condition he not interact with his daughter — while he receives subsequent follow-up care for the amputation.

After Amputation

Romero was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and became a United States citizen on November 18, 1996.

He spent the majority of his adult life working as a laborer in factory production — line jobs that required him to stand for most hours of the day. Now, according to the notice of claim, he can no longer find employment.

“I am like a little kid, you know?” Romero said, noting his wife must aid him in simple tasks like using the bathroom, and that he remains wheelchair-bound. “I don’t think I can find new work anymore, because I’m 72 years old now.”

Romero alleges he had no previous serious medical conditions such as diabetes, and wasn't on any regularly prescribed medication. Prior to his amputation, he said the only time he’d gone to the hospital as an adult was for a few broken ribs. He continues to return to Tucson for physical therapy, making the 80-mile drive from his Wilcox home several times in the last few months.

He said he decided to file the notice of claim based on this financial and emotional toll, which according to booking records, affected him almost immediately. For example, after his second amputation, an officer named ‘B. Wilson’ reported in the records, “He started telling me that he just lost his foot and would not be able to work anymore and make a living and that he does ‘not see a lot of sense in his life anymore.’”

Cochise County blogger David Morgan provided photographs to New Times of Romero's amputated leg.

The notice of claim, filed against Mark Dannels, Cochise County Sheriff, and the Cochise County Board of Supervisors, alleges that jail personnel have a responsibility to attend to inmates’ medical needs, and that Romero lost his leg due to its negligence.

“If we could sue and get his leg back, that would be ideal,” said Joel Robbins, his attorney. “But the only thing we can sue them for is money.”

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.

The Cochise County Board of Supervisors confirmed it has received the notice of claim and is investigating it "through the appropriate channels," but does not comment on potential litigation as a matter of policy.

The defendants have 60 days to respond to the notice of claim.
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.